Commentary Magazine

'The Gringos Are with Us'

At the beginning of a new Chilean movie called NO, set in 1988, two men are discussing their country’s upcoming plebiscite on whether to give General Augusto Pinochet another eight years as president. One is a young advertising whiz who has agreed to consult with the NO campaign to oust Pinochet. The other, his colleague, is a Pinochet supporter. When the Pinochet man claims America is supporting the dictator and his YES campaign, the young man contradicts him: “The Gringos are with us.”

And thereby hangs a tale that has largely gone untold in the quarter century since the end of Pinochet’s regime—the role the United States played in that signal event in the advancement of democratic values in the Western Hemisphere. It was, moreover, a tale in which I was intimately involved as the senior State Department official in charge of Latin America during the Reagan years.

Pinochet took power in a 1973 military coup that the United States supported. His rule was marked by repression—disappearances, torture, limits on freedom of speech and the press—and by the end of Chilean democracy. But it was also marked by economic progress, for Pinochet listened to his free-market economic advisers and laid the foundation for what remains Latin America’s best economy. Those advisers were known as the Chicago Boys because so many of them had studied economics at the University of Chicago. I asked one of them (long after Pinochet was gone) how the general had come to have such a terrific economic policy. “Well, he knew nothing about economics and didn’t care much about it,” the man told me. “But we explained that the left hated the free market, so then he was for it.”

Pinochet claimed to favor law and order so he understood that Chile would need a new constitution. It took him nearly seven years to promulgate one, and that 1980 constitution granted him an eight-year term, to be followed by an up-or-down vote on another eight years. If he were to lose that vote, there would be a contested presidential election. Initially, Pinochet had wanted simply to give himself another 16 years before holding a vote. This after the 15 years he would already have served by 1988. But in his memoirs, then Secretary of State George P. Shultz notes that friends of Pinochet “persuaded him that such a lengthy term would not fit the Chilean people’s concept of legality and that he ought to split the 16-year term into two eight-year terms. In order not to run too much of a risk in an election, a plebiscite referendum would be held between the terms, with only one name on the ballot.” The name would be Pinochet’s, of course. A YES vote granted Pinochet his new term. A NO vote meant an election.

The referendum was scheduled for October 5, 1988. By law, during the 27 days before the vote, each side was granted 15 minutes on television every night at 11 p.m. The NO campaign’s minutes quickly became the best-watched television show in Chile. The movie NO is a largely accurate account of those days. Its protagonist, that young ad man, persuades the opposition politicians (Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and various other groups) that serious policy arguments will never bring them victory. We need jingles, not speeches, he tells them. The NO campaign used funny, light-hearted, bright ads with words and music broadly suggesting that a new day was coming. The film uses many excerpts from those programs, as well as YES campaign efforts, Pinochet speeches, and other historical footage, and is itself shot using cameras from the 1980s. The visual effect—a cross between a home movie and a 1980s TV show—makes the mixing of old and new material seamless and greatly increases the sense of verisimilitude.

The movie veers from accuracy in one respect: It was not the ads alone that secured victory for NO. Many Chileans believed the plebiscite was fixed and therefore did not plan to vote. An energetic get-out-the-vote drive was undertaken for months before that October. The TV campaign was critical, but so was careful organization, precinct by precinct. And much of that work was supported financially by the United States, with millions of dollars appropriated by Congress.

I was working for Secretary Shultz as his assistant secretary of state for Latin America (or in the old State Department parlance, as head of ARA—American Republic Affairs). Shultz had taught economics at the University of Chicago Business School starting in 1957 and served as its dean from 1962 to 1969. He had taught some of the Chileans who were reforming their country’s economy, and he greatly admired their work. Shultz wanted to help them succeed, but he knew this could not and should not come at the price of political freedom. Indeed, he understood immediately that, as he put it, “openness in economic life created increasing strain on the closed, repressive political system.” The United States began to distance itself from Pinochet publicly; in March 1986, for example, for the first time we sponsored a resolution critical of the Pinochet regime in the UN Human Rights Commission. In July 1986, I authorized the U.S. ambassador in Santiago to attend the funeral of a young antigovernment demonstrator who had been burned nearly to death under circumstances pointing clearly to police responsibility; the young man died four days later from these injuries. That the Reagan administration was doing this, and was referring openly to torture taking place and to the need to rebuild Chilean democracy, was widely noticed in Chile and gave democrats there a great boost.

The criticism of Pinochet reflected Shultz’s view, and mine, but it was not shared at the White House. As Shultz noted: “I was not really on the wavelength of the president and many of his advisers; to them, Pinochet was a friend of the United States and a bulwark against communism. Pinochet made everyone uneasy, but he was on our side.” Shultz recalled the constant battle within the administration, and the occasional defeat:

In November 1986, I received a blow from the White House. Chile had applied for a loan of $250 million from the World Bank. I had authorized Elliott Abrams to say in July that the United States would vote against the loan. As the date for the vote arrived in November, at the height of my struggle to stop arms sales to Iran, I was set back. My relations with [then National Security Adviser John] Poindexter and others in the White House were enormously strained at the time. The president was uneasy about a rebuff to Pinochet. From somewhere on his staff the suggestion emerged that Pinochet be invited to the White House for an official visit! In the end, I received authority only for the United States to abstain on the loan vote. The loan went through, projecting a message that was ambiguous at best.

Here Shultz is being diplomatic: As I recall it, the person in the White House who raised the idea of an official visit was Ronald Reagan, and the usually well-contained secretary of state instantly and loudly opposed that idea with one word—his own NO campaign.

The plebiscite was closely fought; Pinochet had real and significant support. In the end he received 44 percent of the vote to the 56 percent the NO campaign got. Considering that Pinochet had been in power since 1973 and ruled with an iron fist, 44 percent was pretty impressive. Uruguay’s then president Julio Maria Sanguinetti, a democrat who had worked to push the military out of power in that country in 1985, marveled at the support for Pinochet in a conversation with me at the time: “Look,” he said, “if I were president here for 15 years and asked for eight more, my own mother would vote NO.”

The real crisis came on election day, as secret documents released over the years indicate. Pinochet had no intention of relinquishing power, win or lose; the film accurately shows this. On September 30, 1988, the U.S. ambassador in Santiago, Harry Barnes, sent me a cable1 reporting that

Pinochet’s plan is simple: A) if the “Yes” is winning, fine: B) If the race is very close rely on fraud and coersion: C) If the “NO” is likely to win clear then use violence and terror to stop the process…. Since we know that Pinochet’s closest advisors now realize he is likely to lose, we believe the third option is the one most likely to be put into effect with probable substantial loss of life.

I shared this cable with Shultz, and we had similar reporting from military channels and the CIA. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report dated October 3, two days before the plebiscite, stated that

Close supporters of President Pinochet are said to have contingency plans to derail the plebiscite by encouraging and staging acts of violence. They hope that such violence will elicit further reprisals by the radical opposition and begin a cycle of rioting and disorder. The plans call for government security forces to intervene forcefully and, citing damage to the electoral process and balloting facilities, to declare a state of emergency. At that point, the elections would be suspended, declared invalid, and postponed indefinitely.

 But in the DIA’s report there was also some good news, and something to work with:

Most army officers have expressed confidence in a government victory, and the majority have indicated that the military’s proper reaction to a “no” victory, barring massive violence, would be to abide by the constitutional framework.

After briefing President Reagan and assuring his support—he understood that in crushing the plebiscite, Pinochet would be destroying any hope of stability in Chile—we moved into action. On October 3, the State Department’s spokesman stated that the United States was concerned about reports that elements of the regime planned to nullify a NO vote or cancel the voting. A message went directly to Pinochet. We sent instructions to the CIA station chief to deliver an extremely tough message to his intelligence contacts at the top levels of the regime. Ranking U.S. military officers said the same thing to top Chilean generals. We asked the British, who had excellent ties with the Chilean military, to do the same, and they energetically did.

These were the talking points: “I want to warn you that implementation of such a plan would seriously damage relations with the United States and utterly destroy Chile’s reputation in the world. President Pinochet should also be informed that nothing could so permanently destroy his reputation in Chile and the world than for him to authorize or permit extreme violent and illicit steps which make a mockery of his solemn promise to conduct a free and fair plebiscite.”

While the film suggests a reasonably smooth release of results on election night, in fact the junta stopped releasing numbers when it saw the way the vote was going. A post-midnight cable from our embassy reported that “the GOC (Government of Chile) is obviously sitting on the voting results and releasing them very slowly.” At 1 a.m., Pinochet called all the members of his junta together at the presidential palace, La Moneda. He was “nearly apoplectic” about the results, one informant told us, and asked his colleagues to annul them. It was to be martial law; troops should seize the capital, he told the generals.

One of them, Air Force commander Fernando Matthei, took an unusual step to prevent it. On his way into the meeting, he stopped to talk with the press and told them it looked like NO had won. As the DIA reported, “Gen. Matthei’s statement to the press upon arriving at La Moneda that it appeared that the NO had won was a deliberate pronouncement intended to limit General Pinochet’s options.”

The overnight DIA report is dramatic and worth quoting at length. It was entitled “Chilean Junta Meeting: The Night of the Plebiscite.”

In the junta meeting, Pinochet was described as very angry and insistent that the junta must give him extraordinary powers to meet the crisis of the electoral defeat. He had a document prepared for their signatures authorizing this.?.?.?.?Pinochet spoke of using the extraordinary powers to have the armed forces seize the capital. At this point Matthei stood up to be counted. Matthei told Pinochet he would under no circumstances agree to such a thing. Pinochet asked again for special powers and again Matthei refused saying he had had his chance as the official candidate and lost. Pinochet then turned to the others and made the same request and was turned down by [national police commander] Stange and [Army General] Gordon. Tension in the room was so high at the moment that [Brigadier General] Sergio Valenzuela, the secretary general of the government, collapsed from what turned out to be the first stage of a heart attack. At this point, without junta support to overthrow the “NO” win, Pinochet was left without alternative but to accept a “NO” win.

We’ll never know for sure what those generals would have done had the United States not firmly warned them, in every channel, against what Pinochet had in mind. Perhaps the key was the stance of General Matthei, with whom the United States had been in frequent touch. We appealed to his patriotism, and argued that the best way to fight Communism in Chile was now through democracy—and such an appeal from Ronald Reagan must have had an impact.

The junta meeting that night was the beginning of the end of military rule. After Pinochet’s defeat in the plebiscite, a real presidential election was held and won by a Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, who had been the leader of the NO campaign. That Aylwin was followed by another Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, was no surprise to those of us who had worked hard to organize American support for a return to democracy in Chile. The opposing argument was that he would be followed by a worse dictatorship under Communists who would be anti-American—precisely what had happened in Cuba in 1959 and Nicaragua in 1979. That argument was supported by some in the White House and by the late Senator Jesse Helms. But we in the ARA bureau thought the Communists had won in both those cases because the center had been very weak and the security forces had utterly collapsed. We did not think Chile’s army would collapse (Pinochet himself continued to lead it until 1998, in fact). And we knew exactly who would lead a post-Pinochet Chile, because the Christian Democrats who won the first two presidential elections and the Socialists who won the next two had regularly visited us in Washington. Very often they would come to my office and Shultz would slip down to see them there; that way, the visits were quiet and did not appear on his schedule. We thought they were moderates and true democrats, and we were right; and judging by Chile’s economic progress since Pinochet’s departure from power, Shultz’s lectures to them about the need to maintain Pinochet’s free-market policies may have done some good.

The movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year, is fun to watch, and its account is fundamentally accurate. Not least is it accurate in having its star actor say of the Chilean fight for the restoration of democracy that “Los Gringos estan con nosotros.” The Gringos are with us. And so we were.


1All the cable and intelligence material mentioned here is available now from the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

About the Author

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An excerpt from his new memoir of his eight years working in the George W. Bush administration, Tested by Zion (Cambridge University Press), appeared in our February issue.

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